How might the characters and events in William Shakespeare's Hamlet be examined in terms of the theme of appearance and reality?

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The theme of appearance vs. reality is a major motif of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet and affects a number of the work’s characters and events, including the following:

  • The Ghost.  Is the ghost a trustworthy spirit, or is it a devil in disguise? This, for Hamlet, is a crucial question. Others in the play, however, are also puzzled by the ghost, including the wise Horatio. Thus Horatio, referring to the ghost, mentions

. . . Our last king, 
Whose image even but now appear'd to us . . . .

Is the ghost really the spirit of Old Hamlet, or is the ghost merely a deceptive “image” of Old Hamlet? This is a question that proves as troubling to us as it does to Hamlet.

  • Claudius. Is Claudius a good king, as he pretends to be, or is he the murderer of Hamlet’s father, as the ghost claims?  Hamlet spends a good deal of time and effort trying to determine an accurate answer to this question.
  • Hamlet. Is Hamlet a sane man involved in a sincere search for the truth, or is he an increasingly insane person who has become unhinged by the appearance of the ghost?
  • Ophelia. Is Ophelia truly in love with Hamlet, or is she, as Hamlet suspects, merely being used as a tool by her father and the king to gain information from Hamlet?
  • Polonius. Is Polonius a wise, well-intentioned old man, or is he a mere fool, as Hamlet seems to think?
  • Gertrude. Is Gertrude a good and worthy mother, or is she, as Hamlet suspects, a woman driven by unsavory sexual impulses?
  • Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Are these two men true friends of Hamlet who are genuinely concerned about his welfare, or are they, as Hamlet suspects, mere tools of Claudius?

These are just a few of the many questions about appearance vs. reality raised by Shakespeare’s play. Hamlet is notoriously one of the most perplexing pieces of literature ever written, and its frequent tendency to raise issues about appearance vs. reality is just one of many reasons that this is true.

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